For this week’s Art in a Minute, KAZoART explores the adventurous life of a man who strove to be authentic and true, notwithstanding fame or influence. Let’s take a look at how Willem de Kooning went from speaking one word of English to becoming the greatest among the American Abstract Expressionists.

Willem de Kooning in his studio circa 1952

Willem de Kooning is…

…a stowaway

Born on April 24, 1904 in the Netherlands, de Kooning lived with his father during his childhood and with his mother during his teenage years. Dropping out of school in 1916 to become an apprentice for commercial artists, he later attended night classes at the Rotterdam Fine Arts Academy which is now known as the Willem de Kooning Academy. In 1926, he decided to do something daring and follow his adventurous spirit. With the help of a friend, he hid himself in the underbelly of an Argentina-bound British ship that was set to stop in America. Arriving in Virginia, he soon made his way to New York City.

Once there, he was immersed in the vibrant culture of the 1920’s Jazz Age. The young artist was exhilarated by the organic talent sprouting from its art scene. His time in the city introduced him to the work of Matisse and the Fauvist movement but also that of Miro and Picasso; the latter of whom he greatly admired. Following the Great Depression, de Kooning managed to find work in the Mural Administration of the Works Project Division. Unfortunately, few of his sketches were carried to completion.

Willem de Kooning, Excavation,1949.

…an artist’s artist

By the early 1940’s, de Kooning’s had befriended contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Franz Kline. Together, they called themselves the “New York School.” Grounded in a fundamental rejection of Surrealist and Cubist principles, they avoided painting recognisable forms. Morbidly afraid of being pigeonholed, de Kooning dreaded the idea of adhering to the same practice for the rest of his life. Instead of disassociating with The New York School, he simply continued developing his own process while simultaneously broadening the definition of what it meant to be an Abstract Expressionist.

Some said that this was an outright betrayal of the movement’s doctrine. While those who knew him understood that he wasn’t trying to attract attention, rather find creative wholeness. Most of his contemporaries appreciated this genuineness and continued to work with him. This is how de Kooning became popular among both the public and other artists.

Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1953.

…the hand behind the outrageous “Women” series

A turning point in his career was in the early 1950’s when he revealed the Women Series. His six female portraits depict ghastly figures with bulging eyes, sinister “teethy” smiles, exaggerated breasts and disproportionate bodies. One critic said that de Kooning must have been involved “in a terrible struggle with the female force” to have been able to make such violently insulting work.

There is much speculation surrounding the women’s identities. Strangely enough, de Kooning later said there was a bit of himself in the portraits as well. His wife, Elaine, revealed that he had always been haunted by his mother, who was dysfunctional and not of a matronly nature. We can nonetheless agree that there are some worrisome Freudian undertones to be unpacked here. It seems that even de Kooning didn’t truly know who he painted or why he painted them.

Starkly defying the feminine archetype of its time, this series is now widely lauded. During the romanticised “Golden Age” of America, women were expected to be docile and domestic, hence the condemnation of his unflattering portrayals. Despite the criticism, the MoMA saw his work to be avant-gardist and bought the Woman I painting. This shift ushered in the beginning of American Abstract Expressionism and placed New York as the new capital of Modern Art.

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1955-56 

Did you know?

Willem de Kooning was a family friend of Paul McCartney. The two met in the 1970’s through Paul’s wife, Linda. They would spend hours in the studio together and it comes as no surprise that de Kooning, whom Paul affectionately referred to as “Bill”, was a major source of inspiration for his own abstract art.

Paul McCartney and Willem de Kooning

What he said

“The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves.”

Willem de Kooning

His greatest works

Willem de Kooning,  Pink Angels, 1945.
Willem de Kooning, Ashville, 1949.
Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52.
Willem de Kooning, Woman II, 1952.
Willem de Kooning, Palisade, 1957.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled I, 1985.

de Kooning-inspired work on KAZoART: Phil Meyer

In his work entitled Ehéhé, Phil Meyer depicts a brightly-coloured female nude through the use of rapid brush strokes on a textured canvas. Though a bit more flattering to his subject than de Kooning, Meyer is equally trying to convey something beyond the woman’s physical appearance.

Phil Meyer, Ehéhé